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How Lockdown Helped Me Reclaim Activism As a Disabled Person

Tw: prison, prison cruelty, corporal punishment, police brutality, murder, eating disorders and mention of the Sarah Everard case.

I love learning about the Suffragettes. About how the name was originally meant to be an insult to them and they took ownership of it. About how their actions lead to my right to vote. About their ownership of green, purple and white. And I can’t thank them enough.

I even try to educate myself about the not so nice bits. Death and destruction. Poor Emily Wilding Davison under the King’s horse. And Holloway prison. Awful conditions. Hunger strikes and force feeding. And I shudder.

In the modern day, I see journalists in the middle east imprisoned and sentenced to lashes for speaking truth to power. I watched disabled people be carried out of government buildings in the US, after staging sit-ins relating to health insurance and pre-existing conditions. The clashes with police at peaceful protests and vigils for a woman killed (allegedly) by a police officer.

And I can’t do it. 

I know civil disobedience is one of the most effective ways to effect change, but it isn’t in me to be the disobedient one. 

Not just because I am a goody two-shoes (although I am), but because I fear that accepting the consequences would take too much of a toll on me. And I realise here that I speak from a position of relative privilege as a Western journalist, who can vote, has free at the point of use healthcare, is white and university educated.

But I also know what I can take and what I can’t.

I don’t want this to become a woe is me kind of thing, but I do need to look at this in terms of limits. 

My mental health wouldn’t survive prison – even in the UK in 2021. I probably wouldn’t have been force fed as a Suffragette owing to the length of time it would take for a hunger strike to cause enough weight loss to be dangerous – but feeding my eating disorder by not feeding myself would be little short of disastrous. 

Being carried away from my mobility devices (which, granted, I only occasionally use) by someone who cares not a jot about my personal comfort could leave permanent effects on my disabled body.

I totally believe in the mantra of “you can’t pour from an empty cup” and believe you need to look after yourself to help others, but I also look at these people in awe. 

These activists, these protestors and revolutionaries who are able to do that, some of them also disabled; I have the utmost respect for them. Some of them do it because there is literally no other option, but some of them don’t. 

But I still think what I do is important, even though it isn’t this. Some people call it armchair activism, but it’s still activism. Raising awareness, lobbying my MP for increased accessibility in my hometown, and to vote certain ways. Petitions, fundraisers, starting a disability focused magazine with my best friend. Education, taking control of the narrative, telling that guy in the office that his behaviour is inappropriate. It all helps us to change the world.

And then covid happened. When we got our governmental orders to stay inside, the face of activism changed. There aren’t any picket lines when you’re on furlough. A protest march doesn’t fall under your permitted daily exercise. And for those few months, my kind of “armchair” activism became activism. Online petitions, emails en masse to MPs, hashtags – it was all we could do. 

So when restrictions lifted and there were Black Lives Matter marches in June last year, and the vigil-come-protests this March following the death of Sarah Everard – and I could attend neither due to my physical and mental health – I didn’t feel like I was doing nothing. I did what I always did online, trying to provide information, sharing bail fundraisers and supporting the outrage. And I felt like an activist.

Discrimination and injustice may occur without limits, and in certain circumstances our activism must also. But activist burnout is a thing as well, and I’ve seen many people turn away from their work because they can’t take it anymore. And isn’t that the worse option? Losing those who are good at “armchair” stuff because of the fear and exhaustion that comes with the rest?

Behind the Suffragettes being force fed at Holloway, a lot happened to transfer their physical sacrifices into real change. Valuable things are done by those not being manhandled and mistreated by authorities. 

Their activism counted. My activism counts. I am an activist, and I always have been. It may have taken a global pandemic to realise it, but it’s true.

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By Caroline McDonagh-Delves

Deputy Editor

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